Tag Archives: trust

Why Trust Matters

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style. In it, I looked at the issue of trust through the lens of social capital scholarship. Trust and reciprocity are essential to social capital–and especially to the creation of “bridging” social capital, the relationships that allow us to connect with and value people different from ourselves.

I didn’t address an issue that I now see as critical: the intentional production of distrust.

Today’s propagandists learned a valuable tactic from Big Tobacco. For many years, as health professionals insisted that smoking was harmful, Big Tobacco responded brilliantly. Rather than flatly disputing the validity of the claim, a response that would have invited people to take sides and decide who they trusted, their doctors or tobacco manufacturers,  they trotted out their own well-paid “scientists” to claim that the research was still inconclusive, that “we just don’t know what medical science will ultimately conclude.”

In other words, they sowed confusion–while giving people who didn’t want to believe that smoking was harmful something to hang their hat on. If “we don’t really know…,” then why  stop smoking? Just wait for a definitive answer.

It is a tactic that has since been adopted by several interest groups, most notably the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing that– as ice shelves melted and oceans rose– few would believe a flat denial that climate change is real and occurring, they focused their disinformation efforts on creating confusion about what was causing the globe to warm. Thus their insistence that the scientific “jury” was still out, that the changes visible to everyone might be part of natural historical cycles, and especially that there wasn’t really consensus among climate scientists. (Ninety-seven percent isn’t everyone!)

The goal was to sow doubt among all us non-scientists. Who and what should we believe?

Now, as information about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election is emerging, it is becoming apparent that Russian operatives, too, made effective use of that strategy. In addition to exacerbating American racial and religious divisions, Russian bots relentlessly cast doubt on the accuracy of traditional media reporting. Taking a cue from Sarah Palin and her ilk, they portrayed the “lamestream” media as a cesspool of liberal bias.

In fact, the GOP’s right wing has been employing this tactic for years–through Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh and a variety of others, the Republican party has engaged in a steady attack on the very notion of objective fact. That attack reached its apogee with Donald Trump’s insistence that any reporting he doesn’t like is “Fake News.”

Both the Republican and Democratic bases have embraced the belief that inconvenient facts are simply untrue, that reality is whatever they choose to believe. (Granted, this is far more prevalent on the Right, but there’s plenty of evidence that the fringe Left does the same thing.)

The rest of us are left in an uncomfortable gray area, increasingly unsure of the veracity of the items that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s bad enough that years of Republican propaganda have convinced the GOP base that credible outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have “libtard agendas,” but thanks to the explosion of new media outlets made possible by the Internet, even those of us who are trying to access accurate, objective reporting are inundated with “news” from unfamiliar sources, many of which are reliable and many of which are not. The result is insecurity–is this true? Has that been report verified? By whom? What should I believe? Who can I trust?

Zealots don’t worry about the accuracy of the information they act on, but rational people who distrust their facts tend to be paralyzed.

And that, of course, is the goal.

 

 

 

Less Trust, More Conspiracy

“People say” was the way our embarrassing President-elect introduced bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or others who had offended him in some fashion.

No evidence. No factual basis. In most cases, no plausibility.

The question rational people asked–and still ask–is “why would anyone believe that?” Because clearly, many did. A recent report from Journalists’ Resource offered an answer, or at least the beginning of one.

President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

A number of studies have found that politically active people–especially conservatives with deeply ideological commitments–embrace conspiracy theories that confirm their beliefs and paint their political opponents in a bad light. A new study builds on that previous research, and adds an important element: the absence of trust.

“Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in October, investigated the hypothesis that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They anticipated that people who endorse such theories would be “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

People with a reasonable amount of trust in social and governmental institutions were far less motivated to accept such theories. The study’s authors asked approximately 2,200 Americans who self-identified as either liberal or conservative to consider eight conspiracies. Four were designed to appeal to conservatives and four to appeal to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also created a “trust index” based on how much the individuals trusted the federal government, law enforcement, media and the public to do what is right.

Here were some of their conclusions:

  • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
  • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
  • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

As I have previously noted, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” can be inexact. (I’ve been called both–and my own definition of both terms is probably different from that of many other people.) Furthermore, there is a demonstrable difference between principled conservatism and the sort of Tea Party and “alt-right light” individuals who call themselves conservatives these days.

That said, the study is illuminating.

The Roots of Distrust

In 2009, I wrote a book called Distrust, American Style. The impetus for that book was publication–and widespread discussion–of a study in which Robert Putnam found that neighborhoods with greater diversity had higher levels of social distrust, and concluded that diversity–living among people who looked or talked or prayed differently– caused discomfort and distrust.

I didn’t disagree with his basic facts–his finding that more diverse populations demonstrated higher levels of distrust–but I strongly disagreed with the conclusions he drew from those facts. Now, seven years later, researchers from Princeton and NYU have weighed in on my side of the debate. As they explained in a recent New York Times Op-Ed,

Our research reveals that even in the short term, diversity is not to blame. We independently analyzed the same data set Professor Putnam used, and we demonstrate that disadvantage, not diversity, is responsible for distrust.

At first glance, our results resemble those of previous studies: People in more diverse communities report lower levels of trust. Scholars and columnists alike have taken this to mean that diversity reduces trust, but we argue that this interpretation is flawed.

My own analysis was somewhat different, but consistent with the results of this new research. I offered two alternative interpretations of Putnam’s research; in the one most congruent with the conclusions of the Princeton/NYU scholars, I relied upon a body of  research that correlated economic and personal insecurity with higher levels of interpersonal distrust.

If you live in a neighborhood where crime is rampant and police presence infrequent, if you make minimum wage, have no job security and no access to health insurance, you are not likely to be a trusting individual. You are also more likely to live in a diverse neighborhood.

In Distrust, American Style I went further. I pointed to the fact that–thanks to the Internet and social media–Americans are more aware than ever of untrustworthy behaviors of our common social institutions. When people see unethical and unsavory behaviors by big businesses, major-league sports, and various elected officials–when even the Catholic Church is found to have covered up molestation of young people–it’s not surprising that citizens feel betrayed and grow cynical, or that generalized trust declines.

In the years since I published Distrust, that latter problem has been exacerbated by the “wild west” environment of social media, where all manner of allegations and accusations of wrongdoing–many invented out of whole cloth– feed what seems to be a national paranoia.

Blaming low levels of trust on the fact that our neighbor is a different color or religion is easy, and it may comfort those for whom diversity is experienced as threatening, but it is an unfortunate and unhelpful diversion from more in-depth analysis.

As any doctor will tell you, you can’t prescribe the right medicine if you haven’t accurately diagnosed the disease.

Trying to make America less diverse by deporting immigrants–the “Trumpian” solution–is not only fantasy. It is the wrong medicine. It not only won’t restore social trust, it will increase paranoia.

Strengthening the social safety net to ameliorate insecurity, on the other hand, will go a long way toward calming the anxiety that is really at the root of our social suspicion.

What We Lost When We Lost Newspapers

I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.

The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. 

The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.

Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”

Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.

What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.